Ah Hanoi, heart of North, capital of all Vietnam, home of Ho Chi Minh’s body, savior of all Vietnam. A city for more than a 1,000 years, Hanoi has a perfect mix of old and new, with a vibrancy that makes it the heart of Vietnam. I was fully prepared for an insane, not so nice experience going to Hanoi, seeing how the people in the North had not been over the top pleasant with us, and the scams seemed to be so prolific. Saigon was such a crazy, insane, to the point of being somewhat stressful, place to be, and people told us Hanoi was worse. We were prepared for the worst. Getting dumped off at night at a shady bus station with touts all pushing and shoving to get our business was just what we expected. We pulled our normal routine of getting out of the station, walking a few blocks in the direction we thought we wanted to go, (no one ever gives you a straight answer to where you are at bus stations, unwritten law), and then hailed a cab. Well, a bit of negotiation, and our bags were dumped into a little VW cab, barely room for the both of them, and we were whisked away.
Now here’s the part that we did not expect, we were only about ten minutes from the section of the city we wanted to find a place in, but the ride over was pleasant. The streets were wide, civilized, and clean. Traffic moved along at a nice clip, following all the laws that you would expect from a civilized world. There were coffee shops, restaurants, and bookstores, all up and down the street. Beautiful French architecture dotted the landscape, interspersed with pleasant parks and lakes. There were beautiful people dressed up to the nines everywhere; posing, shopping, and mingling. We were there in January, so the weather was chilly, but not horrible. It reminded me a lot of being back in Philly in fall, when it’s nice to go out and walk the city, have a beer in a pub, and read in the park.
We had the cab driver drop us off in the Old Quarter where there were a few recommended budget hotels. This was the oldest part of the city, filled with twisty alleys, two to three story buildings, terra cotta roofs, and balconies. Most were French influenced, and modern signage had not yet destroyed the ancient feel of the place yet. The first couple of hotels were booked, but we stumbled onto one where we got the best room for 25 bucks and boy was it nice. We only had two days here, so we wanted to make the best of it. I was chomping at the bit to get out and experience some of the city life for myself. Yvonne was pretty wiped out from a long bus/boat journey of 5 or 6 hours, and still getting over being sick. I wandered around a bit and gave her some time to relax, just circling the neighborhood, getting the vibe of the place. Like all major metropolitan centers, there was good mix of people, from all over the world. So you would hear snippets of 6 to 7 different languages on one block.
I came back and picked Yvonne up and we went out for some dinner. The food options were plentiful, from horrible chain like restaurants to small hole in the wall Vietnamese cuisine.
Though it was only around 9 or so, I had read about a Cinema club called Cinematheque, which showed art house films. I am a huge movie guy and I just love everything about film making, and the collaborative process that is part of it. It did not take too much convincing to get Yvonne to join me on the adventure, so we headed out into the streets looking for some obscure address. We passed a lovely little lake, Hoan Kiem Lake, with two islands with temples on them. This lake was in the heart of the city, and all the traffic passed around it. There was a great park with walkways surrounding the lake; with people hanging out, reading, dancing, you name it.
There were Christmas lights up everywhere, and a serious amount of buzz going on in the city. Everyone was preparing for the Tet New Years, which was coming up next week. People were setting up gorgeous flower displays, because at New Years apricot and peach flowers symbolize new beginnings. We passed thought the high-end shopping district, looking for the cinema club, but all we could find was an alley filled with scooters. We had the proper address, maybe it was out of business. We did a few more loops and decided to walk down the decidedly dicey alley, past a rather large man lingering in the shadows. There were red lanterns hanging above us giving off an eerie glow. The alley went for about a 100 feet than opened up on a courtyard with a café.
We found the entrance to the cinema club, Cinematheque, with a young guy at the ticket booth desk. He was pretty excited to talk to us, and his English was excellent. Private membership was fifteen dollars for the whole year. It was almost worth it just to see one movie, but the movie playing that night was a massive anti-American movie about torture, not really what we were in the mood for. Just the same though, it was really exciting that Hanoi has such a great art house scene. It was the first time on our trip that we had found something like this. As I mentioned I love old movie palaces like the Boyd, so I am always searching for cool movie venues.
Even though we did not see a film we were totally stoked to have discovered a little hidden gem in Hanoi. We wandered back, looking for a nice place to get a drink. Just off the park was a large white mansion with a courtyard over looking the lake. We stopped in and got a very overpriced drink with some high-end businessmen. They were clearly there for the night, with their bodyguards overlooking everything, but seeing nothing. Very ominous.
The next day I woke up nice and early looking for my favorite thing, Phõ Soup. I wandered around till I found a large group of locals sitting on the small plastic stools. It was so crowded that I waited for ten minutes before a stool opened up. I sat next to an old grandma with a big grin, and I assume her daughter with some fluffy poodle thing that sat in her lap. I know I can’t say it enough, but Vietnamese Phõs are my favorite breakfast food in the world.
I picked Yvonne up and we headed to Ho Chi Minhs Mausoleum, where his body still lies in state. The funny thing about Ho Chi Minh, he ruled Vietnam for over two decades, connected the North and South, beat the Americans, and fought for worker rights. He did amazing things, but was a simple guy, who preferred simple things. He died in 1969, and his only wish was that he get buried in a simple unmarked grave with out ceremony. Instead they built a huge granite tomb for him, pumped his veins filled with embalming fluid, painted his face with make up, and allowed tourists to stare at him for 4 hours a day for the last 45 years. Unfortunately for us, well me, because Yvonne had no interest in seeing him, I got there ten minutes before 11, which was closing time. There was no way they were letting me in.
Next we went to the Temple of Literature. Built in 1,070, was the first University of Vietnam, and some of Vietnams most famous scholars went here. The main entrance had a wonderful gate to some really beautiful gardens. There was a turtle theme going on here, with large statues of turtles under pergolas. Each one had names inscribed of classes of students. They studied Confucianism here. There were probably numerous ancient buildings here with arched roofs filled with terracotta tiles. The whole place was incredibly serene.
Outside the walls were calligraphy artists and barbers. Makes sense to me. I decided to get a straight razor shave today, no longer a novelty for me, but more of an addiction. The guy was a bit old and wrinkled, with shaky hands. Hell, I’m not sure his razor was that sharp cause it hurt like hell. As a final swipe he gave me a damn good nick, drawing blood. Jeesh! Maybe this is not the best idea. Bleeding I bought some Calligraphy for my niece, but I was not satisfied with the work at all. So tourists beware, don’t buy anything out side the walls here, all crap.
Next on my list for Hanoi was going to see my good buddy John McCain’s flight suit in Hanoi Hilton, the prison which held American prisoners of war. Most of the prison was torn down, but they left one wing for a museum. They had many well-marked exhibits, from letters, photographs, old weapons, and multimedia, to some creepy life sized dioramas. But let’s not forget what everyone makes a big deal about, the flight suite. Funny thing is, it’s just a flight suit. But I was impressed that John McCain actually came back to the prison as U.S. Senator, and met with some of the old guards. He has done a lot to smooth over relations between Vietnam and America, which has been great for both countries.
At this point we had walked for hours all over the city. It’s the best way to get to know a city, and I am not kidding this is a great city to walk around in. Being the winter here also meant it was cool, no humidity, just lovely. Looking at the map, we discovered there was a cinema not so far away. We got there in time to watch Les Miserable, which was a great movie. Normally musicals are not high on my list, but when it’s Wolverine singing against the Gladiator Maximus, you can’t go wrong. We enjoyed seeing that movie so much, that we looked at each other and said, why not see another one. The Impossible was playing next. There was also a movie premier in the lobby, which was packed with film crews, reporters, and groupies. They were all jostling around a group of well-dressed actors, who were answering questions about their movie I assume, because we did not understand any of it. Well, The Impossible was a phenomenal movie too, based on the tsunami that hit Thailand in 2001. We had traveled through some of the areas that were nailed by it, so it was very relevant to us.
What a busy day, jeesh! A few more drinks and a look at the opera house, some beers on plastic chairs with the locals, and we were already finishing our wonderful stay in Hanoi. We had an airport pickup for first thing in the morning. I could not have had a better weekend in Paris, London, or New York.